The Middle Ages not that bad

Many believe that the Middle Ages were a dark age, a dark abyss that separated classical Greek and Roman antiquity from the “new lights” of the modern era. What is more, many see in the Christian religion the cause of the delay, precariousness and ignorance that medieval society would have experienced.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth! The ten centuries that divided the sack of Rome in 475 AD to the beginning of the 14th century AD, when the “modern” era began, were not only incomparably brilliant, but brought a literary, philosophical and scientific culture which would create and shape the western worldview.

While it is true that the beginning of the medieval period (5th to 11th century AD) lost much of the scientific vigor that characterized the ancient world, this reality was not a consequence of the influence of the religion. To refute this argument, at the same time, the Islamic world – which inherited the Greek tradition – has made significant progress in different sciences. This is proof that religion should not be an obstacle to science and progress if it is not characterized by fanaticism. The cause of the delay in the cultivation of the intellect can be found, perhaps, in the disorder, the chaos that followed the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and in the fact that it had no completely assimilated Greek scientific culture from which he would later have to recover.

When social and economic conditions improved from the 11th century AD, a society with as fervent and active faith as it had been in previous centuries produced an intellectual flourishing that opened the doors of the world. modern.

Some evidence of the complexity and beauty of the Middle Ages.

1. Towns

The fall of the Roman Empire created a power vacuum in almost all of Western Europe. The central authority of the Roman emperor is now replaced by the Germanic royalty which dominates the beginning of the Middle Ages and continues the state administration in a very basic way. The authority of many of these kings was so limited that they had to travel almost constantly with their (military) strength to assert their power. The cities of this period are only a shadow of what they were and largely at the mercy of wandering warlords.

This changed during the 10th century, when (thanks to a combination of political stability and population growth) the power of kings passed in part to the local nobles in what is also called feudal mutation. Local authority became much stronger and allowed city citizens to buy certain rights from their local lord, often in exchange for money or services.

The medieval city, which appeared in feudal times, was the most complete realization of the social ideals of the Middle Ages. Medieval political philosophy was characterized by the idea of unity, so that society was conceived as a body in which each member fulfilled an indispensable function. In this conception, each member of the social body was and ended in himself, and his function was a way of serving God, thus participating in the common life of the whole social body. The medieval city set up an authentic and effective communion and communication of social goods, where material poverty was compensated for by a wide range of community activities.


2. Social structures: brotherhoods and guilds

Group strength was present in medieval mentality and society.

Brotherhoods were a form of such communal organizations. They were veritable fraternal institutions linked to religious life. These brotherhoods revolved mainly around common worship – to a patron saint, the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Holy Spirit, for example. These brotherhoods were a self-help association that helped the poorest members and did important social work – especially widows and orphans.

Guilds emerged from these brotherhoods when professional concerns joined the religious interests of their members. These guilds are characterized by their ties of intense solidarity and a complex combination of religious and secular activities. These activities included masses offered to the deceased brothers, religious performances during special celebrations or the municipal feast; work regulations and wages, and assistance to members in the event of illness or misfortune.

These organizations constitute forms of reciprocal cooperation and offer an important structure of stability to their individual members.

3. Monastic work

After the barbarian invasions (5th century AD) which dispersed the last vestiges of the Western Roman Empire, intellectual life found refuge in the Church. Celtic monks – who then had a better knowledge of Latin and Greek – initiated this movement, copying manuscripts and decorating them with miniature ornaments (7th and 8th centuries AD).

The next boost came from the Carolingian Renaissance, a series of rules implemented by Charlemagne, king of the Franks (742-814 AD), advised by the Anglo-Saxon clergy Alcuin, in order to improve the intellectual life of the clergy. This reform stimulated the knowledge of the monasteries and the churches of the continent, what started the search for new codices and the multiplication of the manuscripts.

4. The universities

The universities were bodies of masters and students who emerged spontaneously from the 11th century AD, under ecclesial authority. Even if, until then, intellectual activity had focused on the monastic tradition, the emergence of universities has engendered a new scientific discipline in the form of Western culture, with countless subsequent achievements.

Masters and disciples (students) from all over the world attended these educational establishments. The former were organized into faculties and the latter, into nations. All students first had to study in the “Faculty of Arts” in order to access the higher faculties where theology, philosophy, jurisprudence, art and medicine were taught – according to the university. Everything was taught in Latin, which contributed to the formation of a supranational and universally European culture.

The universities of Salerno (before 1088), Bologna (1088), Oxford (1164), Paris (before 1200), Montpellier (1289) and Louvain (1426) are the oldest. There were many other universities that formed university circles that hosted passionate philosophical debates. We inherited such a practice of passing exams, lectures, teachers and grades from these early organizations.

5. Literature

The medieval period produced a prolific literary production, with a variety of genres which can be divided according to social groups. Schools, cathedrals, convents and universities have produced works of religion, history, philosophy, theology and science. Knights and castles spread the epic genre, lyric poetry and chivalrous novels. The towns and bourgeois sectors broadcast the drama and the fabliau (short narrative poems).

La littérature française nous a donné les Serments de Strasbourg (842 après JC), qui ont jeté les bases du développement de la chanson de Roland (1000 après JC), l’un des poèmes épiques les plus importants – un poème littéraire qui a célébré les actes légendaires d’un héros. De même, la littérature espagnole nous a donné le célèbre Poème du Cid, écrit entre 1140 et 1207 après JC.

Then, from the 14th century, the urban factor prevailed, giving rise to a realistic, critical and biting literature. The most characteristic works of this period are Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri, Canzoniere (Chansonnier) or Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (Fragments composed in vulgar) is a collection of 366 poems composed in Italian by Francesco Pétrarque, and Le Décaméron (Il Decameron or Decameron) is a collection of a hundred short stories written in Italian by Giovanni Boccaccio.

6. Philosophy

Contrary to what many think, the Middle Ages knew important intellectual debates. The central problems which fascinated the intelligence of that time focused on three main subjects: 1. Creation, and whether it was self-sufficient or whether it should be kept by God. 2. The “problem of universals”, that is to say, the identity corresponding to genus and species. 3. The reason and the object to which it should apply.

Generally speaking, medieval philosophy can be divided into two periods: the first, influenced by the Patristic tradition, of Augustinian and Neoplatonic origin. The second, probably the most prolific, begins with the gradual emergence of Aristotelianism, which had been preserved by Islamic intellectuals and disseminated in Europe through close contact with the Muslim world.

The most characteristic philosophical trend of the medieval period was scholasticism, the main representative of which was Saint Anselm (1033-1109 AD). School knowledge was fundamentally philosophical and theological and was cultivated in schools. A distinctive feature of this trend was collective work, as a team, which constituted a unitary knowledge preserved as a common good bringing together the contributions of various thinkers.

The main medieval philosophers were: Pierre Abélard, Anselme de Cantorbéry, Siger de Brabant, Pierre Lombard, Saint Thomas d’Aquin, Guillaume d’Ockham, Jean Duns Scot, Roger Bacon and Jean de Salisbury among others.

7. Art

Art, in addition to having a devotional purpose characteristic of a deeply religious society, was essentially educational (intended to teach). Medieval Christian art was not an art of forms, but an art of ideas, and became a symbolic language which was applied to various aspects in order to educate the viewer.

Virtue was the dominant value represented in art. It was considered the supreme goal of man. This moral teaching represented allegories of virtue and its opposite sins.

After art, science – understood as manual and intellectual work – whose main function was to redeem the Christian man, through the cooperation of the sacrifice of Christ with the work of man, validly accepted.

Finally, there was nature which, in the Middle Ages, was understood in relation to the transcendental. In this sense, from a divine point of view, individuals sought nature not as an end in itself, but as a means of finding God.

8. Science

The first steps of the Western world towards the development of sciences were motivated by contact with the Arab scientific tradition which had drawn from Western Greek sources. Intellectuals like the English Adelard of Bath translated elements of Euclid into Latin or arithmetic of the Persian astronomer Al-Khwarizmi. Similarly, another Englishman Robert de Chester (Robertus Rettinensis) translated algebra, from the same Arabic author. Meanwhile, in the 12th century AD, in Toledo, Almagest – translates a mathematical and astronomical treatise – of Ptolemy and physics by Aristotle. In natural science, the model of Pliny’s natural history followed. This would lay the foundation for future work.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, the philosophical humanism of Saint Thomas appeared, which became the origin of Western philosophy as well as of the scientific idealism of Roger Bacon nicknamed Doctor mirabilis (“Doctor admirable”) because of his prodigious science and which marks a new scientific ideal for the Western world. Roger Bacon can be considered the founder of positivism. He applies mathematics to physics and creates optical instruments. His works Opus minus and Opus testium compiled the scientific knowledge of the time. His teacher, Picard Pierre de Maricourt, wrote a treatise on the magnet, while others like Léonard de Pise, Jordanus de Nemore and Robert Grosseteste, developed Western mathematics. Astronomy would make great progress in the hands of Bernard de Verdun, Guillermo de San Clodio and Jean de Sicile.

To say that the Middle Ages was by no means a dark period in the history of European Christian civilization.


  • ¿Sabías que la edad media en realidad fue «brillante»? – par Andrés Jaromezuk
  • La Vie de Château : Le Moyen Âge au Quotidien (magazine Historia spécial n°100, mars-avril 2006)
  • Brian Stock et C. Lindberg (dir.), Science in the Middle Ages, University of Chicago Press, 1978 (ISBN 0226482332), « Science, Thechnology and Economic Progress in the Middle Ages », p. 40.
  • Moyenage Passion – site web
  • Nardone, Pétrarque et le pétranquisme, coll. “Que sais-je?” puf 1998
  • Positively Medieval: The Surprising, Dynamic, Heroic Church of the Middle Ages – par Jamie Blosser
  • La Vie dans un château médiéval – par Frances et Joseph Gies
  • The Glory of Christendom, 1100-1517: A History of Christendom (vol. 3) (History of Christendom Series ; Vol. III) – 2004 – par Warren H. Carroll
  • Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade – Updated Edition (Princeton Classics) – par Henri Pirenne
  • Le vrai visage du Moyen Âge, dirigé – par Nicolas Weill-Parot et Véronique Sales
  • Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson (Worlds of Christopher Dawson) – par Gerald J. Russello